This story is part of a three-part series on Black-owned businesses who have filled holes created by an industry criticized for its lack of diversity. Check out these startups' stories.
Toyin Kolawole was born in Nigeria, where she and her mom ran a variety of small businesses, from selling fast food to salt water.
"As the first girl in my culture, you have to help your mom or your parents with all of these things," she said. "So from a very early age, I was a serial entrepreneur."
After establishing her ability to run a business earlier than most, Kolawole went on to study accounting and management in college, and started working for one of the first large private equity firms in West Africa, where she reviewed over 200 business plans. Then she moved to the U.S., receiving her MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and later working as a private equity analyst at Bain & Company, building her experience with the CPG industry and food in the U.S.
"One of the things that stood out for me as an immigrant moving to the United States, I will tell you, is food," she said. "The U.S. is one place where you can really get virtually every culture in the world. That's one of the things I discovered about myself because growing up in Nigeria, I ate Nigerian food. But coming to the U.S., I realized just how much I loved Mexican food or how much I love sushi, things I had never tasted before. It awoke this passion for foods from different regions of the world."
"As the first girl in my culture, you have to help your mom or your parents with all of these things. So from a very early age, I was a serial entrepreneur."
Founder and CEO, Iya Foods
As she tried all of these cuisines, Kolawole started to notice that there wasn't adequate representation for African-inspired foods in the U.S. With her entrepreneurial background, love for food and interest in different cultural experiences, she decided to start a food company.
In 2015, Kolawole founded Iya Foods, an Illinois-based food company inspired by her African roots. She said, in part, she got the idea for the business from her children.
"By that time, I had two boys, who are now 14 and 11. I wanted them to have a positive experience with the Nigerian aspect of their heritage because they were born here," she said.
She said her business started as a quest to find ways to incorporate Nigerian ingredients that she grew up eating with an American twist to them, which is how she described the core strategy for Iya Foods. She developed products like African Pepper Soup Seasoning and Plantain Flour, that have a taste of her home country, but can be used for typical American dishes. People can make waffles or pancakes with Plantain Flour or Jollof Rice, but load it up with bacon. Kolawole said Iya Foods offers something fresh about the way it blends its spices using both American and African ingredients that deliver not just a unique flavor but also nutrition.
Although her experience helped, Kolawole worked hard to get her business off the ground. She attended trade shows, developed some recipes in her kitchen and was one of hundreds of small businesses last year that went to Walmart’s open call events to pitch her products to buyers.
"I wanted products that were new, but at the same time familiar," she said. "I've always fed my children that way so it just starts to make sense because friends would come to birthday parties and they wouldn't be able to get enough and the parents wouldn't be able to get enough."
Consumers are increasingly craving authentic ethnic food and are willing to pay more for it. Kolawole said that Americans are curious for more ethnic food because it is a melting pot of people who are interested in trying new flavors.
"I would say it's been a long time coming. It's something I'm insanely proud of because it just marries together the Nigerian part of me, which I'm proud of, and the U.S. part of me, which I wanted to make proud as well," she said.
Iya Foods is continuing to expand its portfolio and bring more African-inspired flavors to market. Just last week, the company announced a partnership with Terra Ingredients to launch a rice flour alternative called fonio flour, which is a grain native to West Africa and coming to the U.S. this year.
Pushing for BLM support
When Kolawole took her oath of naturalization to become an American citizen, she said she thought about how much she loved America's democratic system and how people could actively get involved in issues.
"When George Floyd happened, and everybody started to participate, I jumped on it because not only had I been active in it prior, but I jumped on it again because I’m married to a Black man, I have two Black sons, so it was something that was very personal to me as a mother, as a wife," she said. She and her company posted support for the Black Lives Matter movement on Instagram.
Kolawole said she didn’t expect the conversation to expand in the way that it has since the first protests broke out in June. "We've been down this road before with Eric Gardner, with Tamir Rice, with Trayvon Martin... but something was different about this one," she said. People of all ages and demographics are getting involved to push for change and the breadth of conversation is broader; it's not just about police reform, she said.
"It is about systemic racism in every industry. People started taking a good look at if we're a private equity company and we've been around 20 years and... if we've invested in 30 companies, are any of those companies women, or any of those companies people of color? If you have a board, do you have anybody in your board that is a minority? So I think a lot of companies, a lot of platforms were looking into that," Kolawole said.
As #BuyBlackOwned campaigns spread on social media, Iya Foods saw a significant increase in sales, Kolawole said. She said now new people have learned about the company who can turn into repeat customers and further spread the word.
"Even though I was grateful for that support...It just felt weird profiting off of what was going on," she added.
So Kolawole decided to donate. It's something she has always done, but is donating even more now to social justice causes. "I'm doing it now. We're doing it as a company," she said.
Kolawole said individuals and companies need to learn to speak up. "That's what we're doing as a small company. We donate to causes seeking equal justice. We donate to causes that root for the underdog. We donate to causes that would show up for the people who have been left behind."
"As a Black mom, when I hear people say, companies say, or other people saying, Black Lives Matter, I feel safer. I feel closer to my community. I feel my kids just got a little bit more safe," she said.
Could this movement have a real impact on diversifying the food industry? "I hope so because it's not just the right thing to do. We talked about collective conscience, it is actually the profitable thing to do," she said.
Diversifying voices in a food CPG company or private equity companies can bring ideas that wouldn’t have otherwise been brought up, she said.
"I hope that as they begin to take a look at their power structure, their teams and everything they do, that they will work towards diversifying that so that it represents America, and the future of America," Kolawole said.